By John Wilcockson
“This is the strongest I’ve been for a ’cross world’s … ever,” said Alison Dunlap Friday night, “and that’s because this is the first season that I’ve actually raced a full season, starting in September.”
The reigning U.S. national cyclo-cross champion was both confident and relaxed when she spoke with VeloNews at the Ibis-St. Nazaire Hotel, where the American team is based for this weekend’s world cyclo-cross championships in Pont-Château, France.
“It’s a really fair course,” Dunlap said. “It’s wide-open, not super technical, only two short runs, and so the strongest person will win. There’s not going to be any hiding, and it’s not gonna be a sprint finish.”
Other than herself, Dunlap said that the medal contenders should be the 2000 and 2001 world champions Hanka Kupfernagel of Germany, 2002 champion Laurence Leboucher of France, and defending champion Daphny Van den Brand of the Netherlands. Leboucher has not enjoyed her best form the winter because of an operation on her clavicle last fall, so Dunlap thought that two other French women have a chance to medal: Maryline Salvetat, who has twice finished second to Kupfernagel in recent World Cups, and Corinne Sempé.
As for the race itself, which takes place Sunday morning, Dunlap said: “I think Hanka will just go to the front like she always does and try and get away by herself. So from the gun it’ll be blistering fast. But I don’t think she’ll be able to get away. I think there’s gonna be a small group after a lap or two, and then it depends on who has good legs.”
While she spoke, a light rain was falling outside after several days of cold, sunny weather in this rural part of southern Brittany. Showers are forecast for both Saturday and Sunday, with temperatures warming up to the mid-50s, which could make conditions trickier than they have been in training.
“Some of the turns are [already] a little slick, and some of the climbs on the grass,” said Dunlap. “We’ll just have to see how torn up they get. I don’t think it’s gonna be the thick, deep mud that we saw in Portland [at the national championships] or in Nommay [the World Cup race] two weeks ago; but it could be soft enough, like riding on a sponge — that really zaps your power. And it could be kind of greasy, where it’s hard to get good traction with your rear wheel. All of that takes its toll.”
Besides the 20-or-so turns each lap, the 2.65km circuit — which was previously used for the 1989 world’s — contains nine varied climbs, the longest of which immediately precedes the finishing straightaway. In view of the likely slick conditions, Dunlap said, “Towards the end of the race those climbs are gonna be pretty tough, especially if it’s a little bit wet.”
Dunlap and the other American riders have had time to adjust to European conditions over the past two weeks. At Nommay, Dunlap was lying fourth in the women’s World Cup race when she crashed into the fencing on the final lap and ended up in ninth. And last weekend, in Belgium, she raced against the junior men, taking eighth overall on Saturday and racing as “pack fill” at Sunday’s Superprestige event.
She said that “it was fun to race with a huge field that was aggressive and very fast. So it was really good practice for this weekend.” That preparation, her excellent health and clear motivation give Dunlap a great chance of becoming the first American woman to win a world cyclo-cross title.
“I’m really excited to see what I can do after having been racing ’cross for five months,” she concluded. “Hopefully, it’ll be good.”